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Van Beek: White collar does not just refer to your shirt – Vail Daily

Opinion Opinion |

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office is proud that in its battle against white-collar crime, in partnership with the Department of Health & Human Services and the District Attorney’s office, it has successfully recovered over $1 million in court-ordered restitution. That is taxpayer money being returned. 
The term “white collar” became popular in the 1950s to refer to those who did not wear a uniform (commonly blue) to work, were hired for complex jobs (physicians, attorneys, finance, etc.) generally as higher-salaried management, and had college degrees, often with other professional credentials. They were those who were destined to become leaders in their industry, and many aspired for their success. 
Elements of corruption can surface in many areas and will sometimes go unnoticed because of the tremendous respect we have for the people involved, especially if they are neighbors and friends.
Whether intentional or accidental, we have seen an increase in white-collar crime, and it occurs even in our wonderful community. Unethical and illegal activity is expanding into unexpected areas — drugs, government programs, cybercrime, embezzlement, Ponzi schemes, money laundering, varying degrees of corporate fraud, and even identity theft. The list is as extensive as the imagination will go. 
While drug busts make the news, it’s the quiet white-collar crimes that take much more time as they tend to be discrete, unexpected, and often from people that we revere. This stuff is not limited to Hollywood films, it occurs daily, even in Colorado.
Larger cities have entire divisions dedicated to white-collar crime investigations. Eagle County utilizes our limited resources quite efficiently and has had much success, yet there is always more that we want to do.
What is classified as white-collar crime may not be as direct a hit as robbery, assault or a drug deal, but it is an area where we all pay a price.  When it is government fraud, it takes money away from those truly in need and everyone pays it in increased taxes. 
With the recent pandemic, the government offered many programs that provided financial relief.  These took the form of direct payments or grants for individuals and struggling businesses. Because the amount of money being distributed was so huge and the number of people to process these claims was so few, fraud became more commonplace than anticipated. People found it easy to file for unentitled benefits, with some receiving multiple checks, from different programs, spurring an increase in identity theft and outright fraud. 
During this time, many people filed for unemployment because businesses were shut down, which frequently included other programs. Others kept collecting on government programs like welfare and Medicaid, at a time when resources were still strained, causing those who were truly in need to have difficulty securing necessary medical care and increasing the tax burden on everyone else, also struggling to make ends meet. 
With nearly everything being conducted online, cybercrime escalated. Fraudulent programs emerged, banking and money schemes increased, expanded online shopping created new opportunities for securing credit card information on fictitious websites, and all sorts of programs were developed that preyed on seniors and the fear experienced by other vulnerable populations. 
Drug dealing, at the top, is also white-collar. Unlike the TV show, “Breaking Bad,” which glamorized a drug-dealing sympathetic character, make no mistake, the drug trade is deadly. It is highly lucrative, and it takes lives, both long-term through drug addiction, and short-term through immediate death, particularly with additives like fentanyl. While drugs may be distributed by violent gangs, they are all too often funded by white-collar criminal organizations. The drug busts you read about are often of the drug runner and not the money behind the large-scale drug acquisition or distribution syndicate.
Embezzlement and corporate frauds are multi-dimensional. They cover a wide variety of activities, are always focused on financial gain, and are crimes that impact others, as losses can not only bankrupt a business, but those that do survive end up passing those losses on to the consumer level, sometimes impacting an entire industry, depending on the size of the fraud. The larger the organization, the more likely that someone in mid-management will be the culprit.
So, what are people to do to protect themselves? Law enforcement is relied upon to reestablish balance and maintain order. At a time when the “new normal” is including an increase in both crime and violence, and methods of implementation are becoming more sophisticated and digital, we must be ever vigilant in understanding that not all criminals look the part. Sadly, we may discover that a community member is involved. 
Nearly every sector needs procedures in place to help mitigate increasing risk. Eagle County has had some incredible success in securing convictions and reclaiming money that has been illegally obtained, thus increasing community safety. 
Our community is fortunate in that its members tend to feel a sense of responsibility to one another and become somewhat protective of their neighbors and friends, yet there are still white-collar crimes that occur.  Most center on financial fraud, particularly relating to construction contracting and corporate affairs. Nefarious people will seek a weakness, then exploit it, gaming the system for personal gain. One area that seems to attract those who are intent on perpetrating fraud because of the variety and expansiveness of its programs is the Department of Health & Human Services. 
The Department of Health & Human Services is honored to be in a position of helping those who are in need of assistance. However, government funds are limited and do come with rules for eligibility. If you are ineligible for one program, you may qualify for another. 
HHS coordinates with other county resources, as well as state, federal, and private agencies, to assure that anyone who needs help, can find it. The eligibility criteria vary but we try to match needs with resources. We do have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer, to make sure that funds are available to all who are truly in need, therefore we must follow strict guidelines against fraud. 
Theft of public funds is a serious crime and in partnership with the DA and the Sheriff’s Office, we have been successful in recovering over $1 Million in court-ordered restitution. Criminal charges are only filed on those who demonstrate clear fraudulent intent — it is not for a minor mistake or error on an application. We do this to protect resources for the members of our community who struggle for food, medical care, and other needs. It is the reason we are here. If you are going through a tough time, let us help you.
This highly valued partnership has been ongoing for five years and has helped secure the future of those who have come across tough times, and just need a helping hand to get back on track, without which, they will go hungry or without necessary medical care or other essential need. I am deeply grateful for the work that is being done every day by HHS and the DA’s office. 
Fraud is not a victimless crime. It impacts everyone, from those who need services, to those who are taxed to pay for them. The Sheriff’s Office is the investigative arm of potentially fraudulent activity, and while we understand innocent mistakes, we will vigorously pursue those with nefarious intent. It damages trust and impacts our community’s overall well-being. 

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